Do You Need to Exfoliate if You Use Retinol?




All beginner skincare enthusiasts have the same question – do you need to exfoliate if you use retinol?

My answer is always the same to questions like these, and it’s not the one you want to hear either: it depends.

Exfoliants and retinoids have their place in skin care, and there are ways to use them together. However, not everyone needs both (or either!).

Today, I’ll explore the different types of exfoliants and retinoids, how they work, and how you can incorporate them into the same routine.


Exfoliants and retinoids are two popular skincare ingredients that are often used to improve signs of aging and other skin concerns:

  • Exfoliants help to remove dead skin cells and unclog pores
  • Retinoids are a type of vitamin A derivative that can stimulate the production of new skin cells and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

Retinol is a specific type of retinoid, kind of like how all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares!

Types of Exfoliants

Exfoliation with BowTiedFawn branding

Chemical exfoliation is an awesome step to include in your skin care routine. Regular exfoliation can help reduce dark spots, prevent acne, smooth your epidermis, and improve signs of aging.

There are several types of exfoliating acids that are commonly used in skincare products, including alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs).

Let’s take a closer look at each of these types of exfoliants.

Diagram of skincare exfoliation with BowTiedFawn branding

Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHAs)

Stratia Soft Touch AHA with BowTiedFawn branding

AHAs are a type of exfoliant that is derived from fruit and milk sugars. They are known for their ability to gently remove dead skin cells and improve the texture of the skin.

Although they work differently than retinoids, exfoliating products can also speed up cell turnover.

Some examples of AHAs include lactic acid, glycolic acid, and mandelic acid. Interestingly, glycolic acid has even been proven to stimulate collagen production above 8% concentration!

Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHAs)

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant with BowTiedFawn branding

BHAs are a type of exfoliant that is derived from salicylic acid, which is a natural compound found in plants. Another example is betaine salicylate.

BHAs are ideal for those with acne-prone skin or those who get blackheads and sebaceous filaments. This type of exfoliation is great for clearing out your pores.

Polyhydroxy Acid (PHAs)

PHAs are a newer type of exfoliant similar to AHAs. However, they are larger in size and have a lower pH, which makes them less irritating to the skin. PHAs are ideal for those with sensitive skin or those who have had a reaction to AHAs in the past.

Types of Retinoids

Retinoids with BowTiedFawn branding

Retinoids are a type of vitamin A derivative that is commonly used in skincare products to speed up cell turnover and improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone. There are several types of retinoids. My three favorites include:

  • Retinol: an over-the-counter retinoid that is available in a variety of skincare products, including serums, creams, and gels
  • Adapalene: the only over-the-counter retinoid. It is commonly used to treat acne.
  • Tretinoin: aprescription-strength retinoid. You need to see a dermatologist for a prescription, but it is the gold standard in anti-aging

Incorporating Exfoliating Acids and Retinol into Your Routine

6 Drunk Elephant skincare products with BowTiedFawn branding

So, how can you incorporate both a retinol product and a chemical exfoliant into your skin care routine without causing skin irritation? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Start with a low frequency of retinol usage and gradually increase: a good starting point is to use retinol three to four nights per week, or as tolerated
  • Exfoliate in the evenings: Swap out retinol for a chemical exfoliant a few nights per week. Exfoliating once or twice a week is generally sufficient, but you’ll have to adjust frequency based on your own needs
  • Give your skin a day off from all actives: I always suggest at least one day to give your skin a break from all active ingredients. This protects your skin’s natural moisture reserves and barrier
  • Avoid combining AHAs and retinol: While AHAs and BHAs can technically improve your skin’s ability to absorb and use retinol, I generally suggest not to combine these ingredients as it increases potential irritation
  • Wear SPF in the mornings: AHAs and retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so I suggest wearing a broad spectrum sunscreen in the mornings. This will protect you from UV rays.

The Importance of Protecting Your Skin Barrier

Healthy vs. compromised skin barrier diagram with BowTiedFawn branding

One of the most important things to consider when incorporating exfoliants and retinoids into your skincare routine is the importance of protecting your skin barrier.

The skin barrier is a thin layer of oil and cells that helps to protect your from environmental stressors and maintain your moisture levels.

Done incorrectly, exfoliating products, especially harsh ingredients like glycolic acid, will disrupt your barrier.

When disrupted, you may experience irritation, dryness, and a greater risk of infection.

In order to protect yourself, make sure to:

  • Choose skincare products that are appropriate for your skin type and concerns
  • Avoid over-exfoliating or using harsh ingredients
  • Give your skin a break from all active ingredients on occasion.

Additionally, even if you don’t have dry skin, using a moisturizer every night after your active ingredients will help maintain healthy skin.

In my opinion, moisturizing is essential for healthy skin. It can prevent flaking, irritation, and redness when using retinol or any other actives in skin care.

Plus, if you deal with oilier skin, there are still moisturizers specifically formulated for your skin needs.

Be sure to check out my moisturizer reviews of Stratia Liquid Gold and First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream!

In Conclusion

Both retinol and chemical exfoliants are effective skin care ingredients that can help with your specific skin concerns. These two ingredients have great benefits and are essential for fighting signs of aging.

However, I do not suggest layering them at the same time due to potential side effects. Instead, choose different nights to use them.

As per usual, it’s most important that you listen to your body! Make sure you choose skincare products that are appropriate for you. Plus, you can always check with a dermatologist if you want an expert opinion.

When you finally decide to it's time to improve your health and appearance, you need to sign up for my Substack below. Find specific skin routines and protocols in My Roadmap or start with my Basic Skincare Guide.

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